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Why Kelowna's plan for highrises downtown can change by 20 storeys

This illustration shows the proposed towers on Coronation Street (darker buildings) but also gives a good illustration of what Kelowna's skyline is shaping up to look like, including the three towers to the left that will include UBCO.
This illustration shows the proposed towers on Coronation Street (darker buildings) but also gives a good illustration of what Kelowna's skyline is shaping up to look like, including the three towers to the left that will include UBCO.
Image Credit: Submitted/City of Kelowna

It was just seven months ago, Jan. 10, when the City of Kelowna adopted a brand new plan that, among other things, showed how tall skyscrapers could be built downtown.

Those were supposed to max out at 26 storeys.

Yet, on July 23, city council agreed to a 46-storey UBC Okanagan tower – a 20 storey variance.

READ MORE: Work crews heading to Kelowna’s UBCO downtown campus site in a matter of days

That same night, just a couple of blocks down the street, council approved a 25-storey tower to replace the former RCMP building despite the fact that site was designated for a maximum of 12 storeys.

Yet, a day earlier, council rejected three towers on nearby Coronation Avenue, the tallest being 33 storeys, because they didn’t fit the plan.

READ MORE: Rejected proposal for three Kelowna highrises could be back before council in fall

"For something like UBC, it’s quite a unique project and it’s bringing a post-secondary institution to our downtown,” Robert Miles, the city’s long range policy planning manager, explained to “It’s providing rental housing. It’s providing student housing.

"When the Official Community Plan was being crafted, the plan was designed to be flexible, and to give staff and council and the public an understanding there may be some projects that come our way that are, perhaps, taller than what is singled in the building heights map, but have a lot of fantastic merits and qualities that warrant some consideration for greater heights.”

The plan he’s referring to is a massive document that took years to put together but still left some items that need to be revisited.

One of those is to explain the rationale for a building heights map for downtown highrises along Ellis Street.

The idea of that map is to create a skyline with the tallest buildings along St. Paul Street then to have them taper down to 12 storeys to the east and west before transitioning down to lower buildings along Richter Street and the cultural district nearer the waterfront.

Miles and his staff are preparing a report, complete with skyline illustrations, that will go to council within the next couple of months to specifically look at building heights along Ellis Street. But he has not yet been directed by council to review the map as it affects Coronation Street.

There are already rules in place that give council and staff the ability to deviate from the height map.

“You have to look at the guiding policies behind the plan,” Miles said. “(The plan) was meant to be a guiding policy document. We wanted to signal where the taller buildings or lower buildings would be and what we would generally be targeting for heights but, again, recognizing that the plan is meant to guide decision making.”

The maximum 26-storey building height was simply based on the fact that the previous plan had specified that as the maximum height for the city.

At that time, 26 storeys would have been the tallest in Kelowna.

Since then, One Water Street came in at 35 storeys, one tower now under construction at Water Street by the Park on Leon Avenue will be 42 storeys and the UBCO tower will be 46.

The trigger for allowing taller buildings is Policy 4.4.3 that says buildings can be taller if they bring “significant benefits” to the city.

UBCO fits many of those criteria.

Other things that could justify a height change include affordable, supportive and/or rental housing, a significant public amenity (the RCMP tower will have 6,000 square feet of public space and be rental) or may provide things like parks or bike routes offsite.

It also permits height increases for “outstanding and extraordinary architectural design.”

Some of the opposition to the UBCO tower was that it simply violated the newly-adopted plan.

In fact, it fit that policy allowing for a change.

Up soon, however, is the One Varsity tower project right across Doyle Avenue from the UBCO tower.

It’s being proposed by Kerkhoff Construction who built One Water Street.

While it has yet to be rezoned by the city, it is being marketed as a 36-storey condo tower.

The list of amenities includes things like a co-working lounge, indoor dog area with wash/grooming station, oversize laundry, kitchen and lounge and more things focused on the prospective new owners.

The key, when it goes to council, will be whether it provides any “significant benefits” to the city to justify the extra nine storeys.

Of course, not being rental or offering public amenities – at least none being advertised to prospective buyers – it might still be able to fall back on the “outstanding and extraordinary architectural design” exemption.

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